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Posts Tagged ‘Medieval History Through Literature by Rea Berg’

Dear Readers,

Just a little over six weeks from now, June 12-14, the Great Homeschool Convention returns to California for three days of wonderful workshops, keynote speakers, and tantalizing curriculum exhibits! At Beautiful Feet Books, we  look forward to connecting with you either at one of the three sessions I’ll be presenting, or at our BFB booth.

b4c4f95361719784b9d266fb5f2f0a79One of the topics I will be speaking on is: Classic Literature for Character Building (or Character Through Literature), so I wanted to take a moment to give a brief overview of what my session will cover as you make plans for your GHC weekend!

We can strip the knight of his amor, to reveal that he looks exactly like us, or we can try on the armor ourselves to experience how it feels.  Fiction provides an ideal opportunity to try on the armor. –C.S. Lewis

Over thirty years of reading aloud to my children has convinced me, more than ever, of the profound life-changing, life-equipping, and soul-nourishing importance of great books.  Recently I began reading Charles Dickens’s  A Tale of Two Cities to my youngest daughter, aged 14.  She was fairly ambivalent as we began, particularly because the 19th century English verbiage is challenging, to say the least.  Not being familiar with Dickens can stop even an avid reader from wanting to continue what can be a truly challenging endeavor.  Fortunately for me, an older adult son happened to be visiting at the time and remarked that A Tale of Two tale-of-two-cities-book-cover-450x600-1Cities was his favorite book in high school.  He even remembered writing his own Tale of Two Cities based upon Dickens’s great work. Haply, that helped cinch the deal, and we continue pursuing this remarkable novel knowing that the unforgettable characters that Dickens created in this work–the cruel Madame Defarge, the noble Charles Darnay, and the ultimately self-sacrificing Sydney Carton, will impact our hearts long after we close the final pages of this book.  As Lewis notes in the quote above, we can either choose to live cynical unimaginative lives, or we can, through our imaginative powers walk vicariously in the shoes of another, and through that identification, ultimately determine what kind of people we want to be.  Will we make noble, self-sacrificing choices like Darnay and Carton, or will we be unforgiving and vengeful as the cruel Madame Defarge?  In small ways, we have an opportunity to make these choices each day.

The best books inspire us, not by preaching lofty sermons, or by moralizing lectures, but by drawing us into stories that resonate with the human desire to love and be loved, and by our longing to live for something bigger and better than ourselves. In the novel Don Quixote, Cervantes states through his main protagonist that the ” . . . ultimate end of writing is both to instruct and delight” (476).1 Since Cervantes is credited with the invention of the modern novel, perhaps his perspective is one we should take to heart. Regarding the notion of “instruction” of course, as parents we get that, that is a given. In our parental role we are forever looking for resources to educate, inform, and instruct our children. But how often in that pursuit, do we neglect the notion of delight? When we make choices of literature,  do we adequately factor in the importance of delight as an essential medium of the most important kind of learning?  Consider how often Jesus used stories to teach moral lessons.  His stories were never dry, dull, or boring.  Rather they captured his listeners by their pure simplicity, their inherent truth and their clear applicability to everyone’s lives.  All great literature has these same inherent qualities, from the simplest children’s book like Make Way for Ducklings to sophisticated novels like Pride and Prejudice.  

In June I’ll be presenting the essential elements that make books delightful, and how stories have the power to truly mold ourselves and our children into the kind of characters we want to be in this great drama called life–written and directed by the master storyteller Himself. I hope to see you in June at the Great Homeschool Convention!

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BFB Manual 1stpgHi Readers,
Last month in Santa Barbara, our new Beautiful Feet representatives came together from around the country to talk about vision, share our lives, and get better acquainted as we look to working together in the future.  It was a very special time for all of us, and we thought it might be encouraging to reflect a bit on our experiences and share some photos with you!

Here are some reflections of our time together:

How beautiful it was to spend a weekend surrounded by women who share the same desire to gift their children with a love for great books!  There’s something extraordinary in exchanging with another mom an experience we’ve had watching our children light up when they’ve read a story that prompts their minds to think about what they’ve read, and compare it to their own process of thinking or life choices.  What continually stands out the most from this weekend is, “there’s power in story”.  Over and over again, this theme rang through all of our conversations.  It’s this truth that inspired me the most, a truth I hope to instill in my two young warriors.  Thank you, Beautiful Feet Books, for your heart-felt desire to deposit something incredibly special into the lives of our family!                        –Karyn C.

I had such a glorious, refreshing, and magical time with all of you.  I am convinced that Beautiful Feet Books are not DSC_3094only the most fun and adventurous time of the day, but it’s our opportunity to bond and connect to each other and the human heart.  I am so grateful that God has led me too this.  I loved hearing everyone share their stories over laughter, and delicious beautifully arranged meals.  The Nicoise salad was just fabulous.  Kathy’s passion and quiet yet fiery spirit about her convictions just brought delight to my soul.  I along with her, am assured that I want to do every curriculum that is out there with my children or by myself if they are unable to.  These amazing stories teach my children, along with myself, the essence of compassion, forgiveness, redemption, and that they too, are part of a great story.  I will be shouting “Beautiful Feet” from the roof tops until I am old and gray.  I have stumbled upon treasure and look forward to seeing how many more families are impacted.   It’s so beautiful to witness the hearts being evoked through history and great stories through literature.  I had such a memorable and warm time.   –Vanessa H.

DSC_3101“Words are how we think; stories are how we link.” Christina Baldwin
As I sat around the patio table, I was awe struck by the stories which were being shared. Each woman’s story was different, but the stories linked us in a common bond. Our common bond is the implementation of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy through the use of “living books.” “Living books” nurture the imagination, feed the soul, and stir the conscience. It was amazing to see how one woman’s influence has rippled out and touched the lives of those who were participating in the discussion and those within each woman’s sphere of influence.  –Kathy A.

I had the privilege and  most extreme pleasure in being able to participate in a marvelous and inspiring retreat with Beautiful Feet Book’s Rea Berg, Rebecca Manor, Josh Berg, and a group of passionate moms!  So lucky was I!! The DSC_3114Beautiful Feet Book’s family is zealous about passing on the legacy of history and literature!! It was an honor to learn from their intensity to learn and grow and pass it on. I loved loved learning from Rea and her reinforcing that my ministry is influencing my children and what better way than through stories that lead to empathy. It is not about just mechanically reading a story but molding my children’s heart through them. Of course, this only happens with the best books and I am always and will be forever inspired by their desire to feed children’s minds and hearts with excellence. They are constantly trying to find new ways of doing this with their ideas of more literary guides of heroes for boys and girls. It was amazing to hear from Rebecca and her love DSC_3112and knowledge for history through her new Medieval guide. I am excited about my children learning from her! Their hearts to meet all of our needs was displayed through their teaching, hanging with family, food and fun! I am so grateful to learn from and pass on all that I have gotten from Beautiful Feet Books!!           –Lisa S.

I felt privileged to be part of such a sweet time of sharing our lives together as a group of women, mothers and teachers. Everyone brought something truly unique to the group dynamics and I believe all of us went away inspired and empowered to continue building the lives of our students, children, and grandchildren as we seek to implement CM’s core belief that true education is about life!

Remember that the Great Homeschool Convention in Ontario, California, is just 2 months away!  I will be speaking there on three topics:  Early American History through Literature, Classic Literature for Little Folks, and Charlotte Mason Meets Plato: Restoring the Joy of Education in the Home.  Remember that any registration through the above link, Beautiful Feet Books will make a $5 donation to the Patty Pollatos Fund.  Thank you so much for your support!

All photos compliments of Lisa Sulewski Photography.  All rights reserved.  Thank you, Lisa!

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Dear Friends,

In Part IV of our series BFB Fundamentals, we are exploring the question of whether or not Beautiful Feet Books is classical in nature. As we noted in the previous post, until the definition of classical is clarified, the question can become one of semantics and may lead to simplistic conclusions.  Because classical is currently the homeschool paradigm de jour, examining some of its well-accepted tenets should prove helpful as you determine which path is right for you and the students you serve.

What does contemporary classical homeschooling mean?

Classical education as a home schooling model first became popular as the 20th century gave way to the 21st and has remained so since. For those of us who began home schooling in the 1980s, classical education was the new kid on the block.  As with any fad, it swept many in its wake and provided some folks with solutions to the failing standards they saw in public education as well as in the more relaxed homeschooling model.  Its emphasis on a rigorous academic approach seemed to guarantee the creation of scholars who would take positions of leadership in law, medicine, government and so forth.  This would be achieved through implementing the trivium as we noted in our previous post.

Stage One: The Grammar Stage

Early Greek educators did not view education as the process of three distinct stages, but as soon as students could read and write they were reading the classic Greek texts.

Early Greek educators did not view education as the process of three distinct stages; as soon as students could read and write they were reading the classic Greek texts.

Modern classical proponents ascribe to the notion that learning takes place in three distinct 4-year phases of a student’s life. While these phases may seem to correlate to the physical and intellectual development of the child, the bland acceptance of them can prove problematic. In the grammar stage of the classical approach (also known as the poll-parrot stage), emphasis is placed on pouring into the student facts (indeed “masses of information”-as one promoter put it) as children are supposedly sponges ready and willing to soak up facts of every kind, and can easily memorize these facts. Theoretically, later on, in the logic stage, these facts will be drawn upon as the child begins to reason. While this approach fits some students well, especially those gifted in memorization, other students, particularly those not gifted with the ability to retain masses of disparate facts, flounder. The focus on pouring information into a young child is based on the notion that in the grammar stage children will unquestioningly accept what is offered.

But is this 4-year cycle based upon a truly classical approach to education?  Did the ancients view education through this 12-year paradigm to which modern classical proponents ascribe?  As Diane Lockman points out in her helpful article “Classical Education Made Easier“, the ancient Greeks did not separate the grammar, logic, and rhetoric stages. Students became proficient in reading, reasoning and speaking as they studied the classic texts of Greek literature with an emphasis on copy work and reading and reciting aloud.

An authentic classical Christian education, as developed during the ancient Greco-Roman world and later refined by the Western Europeans and American colonists, involved mastering three fundamental skills so that the student could then explore the deeper meaning of abstract ideas for the purpose of influencing society.  Three chronological stages were never part of the original interpretation.

The Charlotte Mason approach asserts that all children, regardless of age, are capable of reason, delight, appreciation of beauty, and  that “Education should aim at giving knowledge touched with emotion” (For the Children’s Sake). Pouring information into a child for the mere goal of “filling the brain with facts” defies the essential nature of classical education–the desire to teach children to think. True education cannot ignore the spirit of the child, his basic need to feel connected in some way to the studies at tumblr_moe00wJ7U91rrs6fio1_500hand.  At Beautiful Feet we believe this is done through literature’s emotional connection–the ability to identify with others through the power of stories of literary beauty and historical import.  A quick narrative read of historical facts (standard fare in most classical approaches) that offers no literary beauty and no connection to the great questions of the human condition, fails to meet the standards of a truly classical education.

Begin at the beginning: the four-year cycle of history study?

Additionally, the current classical notion that history studies must begin at the beginning (with ancient history in first grade) is another layer of artificial construction upon an already artificial 12-year model.  Classical education’s promotion of a four-year cycle of history instruction seems reasonable and the repetition (“what we don’t get the first time around, we’ll be sure to pick up next time!”) provides reassurance.  While the four-year cycle approach does provide that revisiting, it doesn’t consider the question of age and developmental appropriateness for subject matter. This concern is dismissed by promoting the notion that while studying ancient history with your first grader, one can just focus on mummification, gladiators, and chariot races; in effect this belies the basic notion that ancient history can be taught to a first grader.  The resultant “classical” studies are cultural in nature, not historical. Indeed, Oxford Reference defines history as “the study of past events, particularly in human affairs”–the study of history necessitates the focus on events.

History, taught classically  . . .

So how does one approach historical studies with a truly classical view to nurturing in young students reading, reasoning, and speaking skills? In essence, this can be accomplished in much the same way as the ancient Greeks did it–by exposing children to the best age-appropriate literature which is relevant to their times and culture.  For a young American child this means the best children’s books on the early saga of America’s great story, much as the Greeks read Homer and studied Plato–the stories of their ancestors, the history of their nation.  A child gifted with the knowledge and appreciation of his own historical heritage better understands his or her place in the world and from that foundation can embrace the beauty and the heritage of other nations and cultures.

So, how does this answer our question, “Is Beautiful Feet Books classical?”  If one looks at some contemporary notions of classical, then the answer would be, “No.”  On the other hand, if one perceives classical as incorporating Socratic reasoning and discussion, engaging with timeless literature (age appropriate), eschewing the use of textbooks and bland narrative works, and involving students in the Great Conversation about the important issues of the human heart, then yes, Beautiful Feet Books is classical.

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Notre Dame de Paris and the Seine river França...

Notre Dame de Paris and the Seine River

Dear Readers,
Many of you know that in just 2 short weeks, my daughters and I will be flying to Paris to visit our oldest daughter, where she is living with her husband for the year.  I will be spending a month there, and in preparation I wanted to share with you the literature we’ve been reading and enjoying!  Our theme this year has been “all things French” so we’ve been studying French architecture, language, art, music, literature and cuisine! Found out a lot about the last one and some references too, like this one – https://www.foodora.fr/foodpedia/restaurants/6-meilleurs-burgers-de-lyon/.  It has been wonderful!

So the first entry will be on French architecture, as my youngest daughter has just completed a research project on Notre Dame de Paris–one of the premier examples of Gothic architecture in Europe.  Of course, Notre Dame plays such an important part in Parisian history and literature, and is famously the setting for the Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo.  I’ll be posting about that in a day or so.  But Notre Dame itself is seated at the very heart of France (all distances from Paris are measured from this central point) and being that it is built upon an island– Île de la Cité, it is beautifully surrounded by the waters of the Seine River. In my view, this makes Notre Dame extraordinarily picturesque, particularly when viewed from a Paris bateaux, as you boat by gazing up at its marvelous gargoyles, flying buttresses, and soaring vaulted arches.

In researching Gothic architecture, we thoroughly enjoyed a number of excellent resources.  We were pleased to find a PBS (NOVA) documentary entitled Building the Great Cathedrals.  This introduced us to the fascinating fact that many Gothic churches were built using “sacred numbers” from the scriptures. Notre Dame’s dimensions were replicas of the dimensions of Solomon’s Temple in the Old Testament.

A long time favorite of our family, was dusted off and revisited for this study.  Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction by David Macaulay, presents a fictionalized account (Chutreaux Cathedral) of the intricate step-by-step process of building one of these heavenly structures. Macaulay’s genius is in his detailed pen and ink drawings that take the reader inside the rustic huts of the master quarryman, the stone cutter, the master sculptor, mortar maker, masons, carpenters and so forth.  In this way, readers see the world through the simple lives of those who spent their entire lives working on cathedrals, in many cases not living long enough to see its completion. Additionally, Macaulay studied architecture at Rhode Island School of Design, and this architectural background gives richness to the drawings of the floor plans, wall elevations, and elaborate pulley systems that made these remarkable structures possible.  After reading this title, families may want to obtain a copy of the animated PBS film made of this book.  Both of these titles are recommended in my Medieval History Through Literature study.

You Wouldn’t Want to Work on a Medieval Cathedral: A Difficult Job that Never Ends! by Fiona Macdonald offers a humorous and whimsical approach to learning Gothic architecture.  This book enables children (and adults) to understand how monotonous and tedious the majority of the work that took place on the cathedrals really was. Most of the peasants and manual laborers that did the heavy lifting were poorly paid, poorly housed, underfed and overworked.  Their legacy is realized in our ability centuries later to visit these structures dedicated to the glory of God.

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Medieval History Through Literature 

The Lady of Shalott" is a Victorian ballad by the English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892). Like his other early poems– "Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere" and "Galahad"– the poem recasts Arthurian subject matter loosely based on medieval sources. Elaine is depicted here by the Pre-Raphaelite artist John William Waterhouse

By Rea Berg

Studying medieval history using a literature approach offers a rich opportunity to mine some fabulous treasures of classic and historic works.  The “terms “Middle Ages” and “medieval” were first used by Italian Renaissance historians “as they sought to separate their own rapidly advancing era from what was often referred to as the “Dark Ages.”1   While no one living during the period generally accepted as the Middle Ages (400-1500), considered they were living in a dark age, in contrast to the rapidly advancing, emerging, and awakening world of the Renaissance, the difference was dramatic. This article will present a brief collection of those works that have status in the Western canon, or have achieved noteworthy awards in the world of children’s literature.

Just as no study of the ancient cultures would be complete without its greatest epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, so too the medieval period opens with the first Anglo-Saxon epic–Beowulf.  Based upon a Norse myth set in the year 500 AD, the Geat hero Beowulf saves the Danes from the man-eating monster Grendel. There are many excellent editions for children, but one that can be used across many levels is Michael Morpurgo’s, with its lyrical alliteration and vigorous illustrations by award-winning artist Michael Foreman.  For junior high students, Ian Serrallier evokes the sparse beauty of the original in his simple straightforward verse in Beowulf the Warrior.  For high school students desiring to do the full epic, Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf includes the original Anglo-Saxon opposite his translation and is notable for winning the UK’s prestigious Whitbread Book Award.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is based upon the legendary Arthur of the late fifth and early sixth century, who seeks to push back the evil and injustice of corrupt lords and Saxon invaders. Sir Lancelot, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Holy Grail, Merlin, the beautiful Queen Guinevere and the tragic Lady Elaine all continue to capture modern readers. Lady Elaine’s heart-rending story is immortalized in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s 19th century poem, “The Lady of Shalot” and would make a rewarding follow up to the study. A popular edition for middle grade students is by Roger Lancelyn Green­–a classicist himself and student of C.S. Lewis. Older students will enjoy Howard Pyle‘s edition of this work, with his beautiful line drawings, or The Boy’s King Arthur; the original Scribner’s edition has incomparable illustrations by N. C. Wyeth.

The Viking discovery in North America around the year 1000 is engagingly told in the children’s classic, Leif the Lucky by Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire.  The D’Aulaire’s lavish stone lithographs feature beautiful Norse runes, majestic fjords, and the muscular beauty of Viking life amidst Northern expanses.  Leif Erickson’s North American discovery comprises an important component of the movement of Christianity westward as Leif was converted to Christianity in the courts of the Norwegian King Olav Trygvason; he then carried the gospel to Greenland.  This well-researched text has been popular since its original publication in 1940.

The Adventures of Robin Hood reflects the enmity that existed in England subsequent to the Norman Conquest (1066) and which was still a factor over a hundred years later, when Richard the Lionheart came to the throne. Robert Fitzhooth, Earl of Huntington, is unjustly stripped of his lands and must resort to the life of an outlaw, under the assumed name of Robin Hood.  Robin and his merry men of Sherwood Forest resist the corrupt civil and religious leaders, and set things aright by “robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.” Roger Lancelyn Green and Howard Pyle have both written wonderful editions for middle grade students (and up) and Marcia Williams has a lavishly illustrated edition for primary. N.C.Wyeth’s illustrations for the Scribner’s edition by Paul Creswick captures the romance and adventure of this enduring story.

If any historical drama fulfills Ben Franklin’s adage, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God,” it is surely the saga of the Great Charter so beautifully told in James Daugherty’s The Magna Charta. The noble Archbishop Stephen Langton, along with his “Army of God”, present heroes for our day, as these brave men stood up to wicked King John and demanded he restore the ancient laws he had so unabashedly trampled underfoot.

Thirteenth and fourteenth-century English life are the subjects, respectively of Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray, which was awarded the Newbery Medal in 1943, and Avi’s Crispin: the Cross of Lead (2003), which won the same distinction sixty years later.  Book-ending over half a century of works devoted to Medieval Europe for young readers, these two works echo surprisingly congruent notions of childhood, morality, faith, courage, civil freedoms, and what constitutes rollicking adventure stories for juvenile readers.

Adam Quartermayne, the protagonist of Adam of the Road, is the son of the traveling minstrel, Roger, and together they have some hair-raising and delightful adventures against a colorful swath of medieval life. Crispin and the Cross of Lead, is set just after the Black Death, the plague that wiped out 20 million Europeans between 1347 and 1350. Crispin is orphaned as a result, and in his travels passes through whole villages decimated by the Great Death.  A major consequence of the plague was the labor shortage that resulted in the Peasant Revolt of 1381 and contributed to agitation to end the manorial system. Avi incorporates these features into an adventure story, setting the protagonist in the midst of events that furthered the progress of human liberty.

Marguerite De Angeli won the Newbery Medal in 1950 for her novel A Door in the Wall by breaking new ground in highlighting the challenges of physical disabilities. Set during the reign of Edward III (1312-1317), spoiled young Robin is struck by a mysterious disease that leaves him lame­–a tragic fate for the son of a knight. After the household servants succumb to the plague, Robin is taken to a monastery by kind Brother Luke, whose gentle lessons impart the courage Robin needs to face his disability. Students who enjoy this read may appreciate Howard Pyle’s beautiful and darkly moving tale, Otto of the Silver Hand, whose protagonist faces physical hardship during the Germanic feudal era of the thirteenth century.  Otto’s story is the story of a little boy “who lived and suffered in those dark middle ages, of how he saw both the good and bad of men, and of how, by gentleness and love, and not by strife and hatred, he came at last to stand above other men and to be looked up to by all.”

Geraldine McCaughrean won the Whitbread Award in 1987 for her depiction of a troupe of fourteenth century Mystery Players in A Little Lower Than the AngelsYoung Gabriel plays an angel in a traveling play dramatizing gospel stories for the mostly illiterate peasants. Unlike the lighthearted minstrels in Adam of the Road, these traveling players are often run out of town by irate burghers or masters of guilds and have a hard go earning a meager subsistence, keeping out of jail, and traveling unmolested.  Young Gabriel’s struggles and moment of awakening provide a satisfying read for middle and upper grade students.

McCaughrean has done an accessible edition of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer suitable for intermediate students.  The importance of Chaucer’s tales and their impact on the progress of civil and religious liberty cannot be overstated.  Chaucer’s subtle irony exposes the hypocrisy and corruption of the powerful; his humor sheds light upon common human foibles of pride, vanity, greed, and deceit–helping us see ourselves better.  Barbara Cohen’s translation combined with the gloriously authentic drawings of Trina Schart Hyman makes a wonderful introduction for all ages.  For primary students, Marcia Williams has abridged and edited the tales and enriched them with her whimsical illustrations.  Those who enjoy Trina Schart Hyman’s work will appreciate her Caldecott Medal winner, Saint George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges.

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz won the Newbery Medal for 2008, and deservedly so.  Schlitz created monologues students could perform that realistically depict the lives of children from the runaway villein, to the village half-wit, to the Lord’s daughter.  This is no sanitized depiction, but one full of the pathos of real human voices speaking across the centuries.

The story of the maiden soldier–Joan of Arc, is one of history’s remarkable enigmas, involving as it does, an illiterate peasant girl leading the army of France to victory during the Hundred Year’s War between England and France. Mark Twain’s Joan of Arc is the undisputed classic for high school students. In The Story of Joan of Arc the French artist/author, Maurice Boutet de Monvel, has created a lavish and moving panorama of scenes from a life both tragic and sublime.

Though this brief article cannot do justice to the wealth of literary gems available for this period, students fortunate  enough to have the opportunity to read even a handful of these timeless works will find, in the words of Matthew Arnold, “instruction and delight.”

Works Cited

1.  Hanawalt, Barbara. A., The Middle Ages: An Illustrated History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. p.7.

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Dear Readers,

I have been thoroughly enjoying reading Cervantes’ Don Quixote for the first time.  I am fairly dismayed and shocked that while I was earning my degree in English I was never introduced to this amazing work since it is considered the very first modern novel.  Consider what a few of the brightest literary critics say about this remarkable work:

Don Quixote is to the Spanish language what Shakespeare is to English, Dante to Italian, and Goethe to German:  the glory of that particular vernacular.  Perhaps Cervantes’s masterwork is the central book of the last half-millennium, since all the greater novelists are as much Don Quixote’s children as they are Shakespeare’s. –Harold Bloom

Don Quixote in his library reading works of chivalry.–Gustave Doré

We state his achievement somewhat more concretely when we say that he created a new form by criticizing the old forms” (Harry Levin, Cervantes’s Don Quixote).

As much as we may mediate on Don Quixote, as the Greeks meditated on the Homeric poems, or the English on the dramas of Shakespeare, we cannot consume all the marrow of the wisdom that it contains.  –Miguel de Unamuno

In losing myself in this remarkable work, I have to agree wholeheartedly with the above sentiments.  Don Quixote is a treasure trove of wisdom on every aspect of life–so much so that while I am a habitual marker of texts (I highlight, post-it note, and underline continually), I have had to stop. The reason is that the text is so rich, so ironic, so satirical, so funny, so full of double-meanings and real-life wisdom that I would literally have the entire work underlined.  Now, in studying this with your student, here is the caveat.  Most translations for children are mainly plot driven.  They follow the humorous and hilarious antics of this crazy knight-errant and his loveable squire Sancho Panza, but with little of the philosophy included.  This diminishes the text considerably and can make the text somewhat frustrating as students will begin to wonder what the point of DQ’s and Sancho Panza’s continual beatings is anyway.  So here are a few suggestions to help make the text more meaningful when using an abridged and edited version:

Gustave Doré’s Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

1.  Don Quixote turns the notion of the archetypal hero on its head.  In other words, the heroic figure we are used to is strong, handsome, young, brave, (think Achilles, Hector, or Odysseus) and has a beautiful maiden for whom he performs his deeds of honor, courage and valor. DQ is the antithesis is many ways because he is (like his horse Rosinante) rather broken-down, old, not much to look at, and crazy.  Despite all of this, he is determined to perform valorous deeds and all he does is basically wreak havoc wherever he goes.

2.  Due to DQ’s distorted perceptions of reality, he causes trouble in countless situations.  This results in continual beatings, deprivations, and humiliating calamities to himself and Sancho Panza. Ironically, the very fact that they are being continually beaten further verifies in DQ’s mind the intrinsic veracity of his knight-errantry. So, one way to make this clearer to your students is to read passages from the original that will particularly strike your funny bone and make sense of the text.  Free texts can be found online at a number of sites.

3.  Since the novel itself turns the notion of knighthood and chivalry on its head, it subtly exposes the fallacies of so much of what we take for granted regarding chivalry, knighthood, and medieval notions of virtue and honor. Don Quixote exposes the ways in which chivalrous works (think Beowulf, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Robin Hood, El Cid etc.) neglects essential aspects of life in view of painting a picture of chivalry so ethereal and inspiring that it is virtually unattainable by mortals.  Here are a number of aspects inherent in the works of Medieval chivalry that Cervantes (through the character of DQ) exposes using satire and irony:

Don Quixote brought home in a cage.–Gustave Doré

Don Quixote brought home in a cage.–Gustave Doré

1.  Knights never carry money: “Don Quixote replied, he had not a farthing, having never read in the histories of knights-errant, that they carried any.
2.  Knights never complain of pain: “If I do not complain of pain, it is because knights-errant are not allowed to complain of any wound whatever, though their entrails come out of it.”
3. Knights are never accused of a crime or brought to justice, no matter how many people they kill: “Peace,’ quoth Don Quixote, ‘for where have you ever seen or read of a knight-errant’s being brought before a court of justice, let him have committed ever so many homicides?”
4.  Knights never eat: “If you had read as many histories as I have, you would have known this; for though I have perused a great many, I never yet found any account given in them, that ever knights-errant did eat, unless it were by chance, and at certain sumptuous banquets made on purpose for them.”

Cervantes applies this same kind of irony and satire to not only chivalry, but also to the many foibles of life and human nature as well.  As you begin to recognize these, your appreciation for this marvelous work will only increase.  In the meantime, for those wishing to study this work with their youngest readers, Margaret Hodges work is probably the best.  For middle and upper readers the latest edition by Martin Jenkins, and illustrated by Chris Riddell will provide not only a well-written abridgement, but also a visual feast. Also, don’t miss the marvelous etchings of  Gustave Doré, a few of which I’ve included here and can also be found online.  Jennie Ruzicka also provides a book of them in her Gustave Doré Illustrations to Don Quixote.    



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The Book of Kells is one of the most famous ar...

Book of Kells

Dear Readers,
As many of you know, I also write for The Old Schoolhouse Magazine (TOS) on topics related to history, literature and the Charlotte Mason Approach.  For the first time, TOS is offering a free digital link to their magazine, so that you can read the entire issue online!  So I am posting this by way of providing the link to you to read my latest article on “Teaching Medieval History Through Literature.”  This is great timing for those of you planning to teach this historical period in the fall!   Here is the link.

I have two additional postings on Medieval History that might be of interest.  For those interested in Shakespeare’s Hamlet I’ve provided some background notes which you may find helpful here.   Also, some insight into King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table here.  Study of the Medieval period should offer each and every student and teacher/parent a delightful journey into the past full of character lessons, adventure, pathos and insight into our cultural heritage.

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